The Ten Percenters – Just War and the Iraq Body Count; or Moral Posturing on Top of a Pile of Dead Civilians.

The Iraq Body Count (IBC) website provides a valuable service itemising the civilian deaths resulting from the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  I agree with much, if not all, of the rationale given by the authors of the site – at least over moral necessity of quantifying civilian casualties.  Where I disagree is over the question of agency.  The IBC posits that all civilian casualties and particularly civilian deaths flow from the Anglo-American initiative to invade Iraq in 2003, and are therefore are attributable to British and American agency.  This is an influential restatement of the orthodox understanding of the issue which attributes all evil in Iraq to Anglo-American agency in isolation.  As the IBC put it ‘The continuing high level of violent death in Iraq since 2003 is a result of the US/UK-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. None of the deaths we record would have happened were it not for the invasion.’

One problem with this is bias – the manner in which it maximises civilian casualties to selectively damn one agency while remaining silent about others.  As an example, the IBC’s approach means that it can happily include Basra homicide statistics during the British occupation and administration and charge them to British agency.  Even if Basra, like any other city, would have had at least some level of crime and homicide going on before the British turned up and after they left.

The problem with this is the denial of agency involved and how this misleads and obscures an important aspect of the moral standard used to evaluate and determine the legitimacy of war – just war theory.  There are two elements to this, normally referred to by the Latin phrases jus ad bellum and jus ad bello, namely the justice of the cause of the war, and secondly the justice of the means by which the war was waged.  The IBC approach and the orthodox understanding it represents delivers a verdict on the first count, a verdict that the war was unjust, and therefore all deaths resulting from that conflict are the responsibility of the agents that launched it. Although I disagree with that conclusion, I have some respect for it or at least as far as it can be applied to an evaluation of the legitimacy of the cause of the war.  As it happens, I believe that particular war started in 1990 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq can be justified as a resulting from manifest and repeated breaches of the ceasefire which concluded the 1990-91 conflict.  The question of just cause can often recede into a childish argument over ‘who started it’ – was it Hitler by invading Poland or Chamberlain declaring war in response?  But this is not to say that the legitimacy of the Iraq conflict, never mind the wisdom of it, cannot be usefully or responsibly questioned.  Unlike most opponents of the war I believe it is possible for responsible and informed commentators to differ over the question.

My problem lies with the question of agency and how this has obscured moral judgment of the second component of just war theory, legitimacy of means; a moral judgement which in my view is as necessary as the first.  After all, to use a common analogy, the normal criticisms of the Allied bombings of Dresden or Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Second World War revolve around the civilian casualties inflicted in what would normally be accepted to be a just cause.  The legitimacy of the Allied cause does not, for most people, excuse or permit what they consider to be illegitimate means to achieve victory.  The perception of legitimacy of means is, for most of us, intimately associated with the civilian casualties inflicted.

This is where independently-researched databases like Malcom Sutton’s on deaths caused by political violence in Northern Ireland or the IBC’s work on Iraq are particularly valuable.  They can cut through the propaganda and received wisdom to expose the reality; who is actually being killed and by whom.  These are, ethically, just as important as the question of a legitimate causus belli.  After all, the justice of a cause might be arguable, but dead civilians are the incontravertable and factual reality of war even if the interpretation of those facts can be subject to honest disagreement.  As the IBC themselves state, the data can be used to indicate trends and thereby implicitly fuel evaluative judgement.

So let’s take a look at this issue of agency as it applies in Iraq, who was killing whom, and what this might specifically indicate in regard to the relative significance of British military agency when it came to civilian deaths.  Fortunately for me, there’s a convenient entry point for this debate over the issue of the civilian casualties caused by British troops (and coalition forces under British command) in the areas of Iraq they administered after the 2003 invasion, which can then be compared to IBC figures for overall civilian casualties in the same area over a shorter timescale to provide a maximal representation of British responsibility for civilian deaths.

The initiative for this came with the IBC’s angry response to the statement in an interview by General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the Defence Staff and professional head of the British armed services for some of the relevant period, that the number of civilians killed by British forces could not be established.  The IBC response (‘IBC’s Response to General Sir Mike Jackson’) observed that IBC data indicated that from 20 March 2003 until their withdrawal on 22 May 2011, British troops were involved in up to 227 civilian deaths with possibly a further 95 deaths also attributable to them (or 322 taking the maximal figures provided by the IBC in both cases; 193 being the similar minimum from the range provided).  I have no problem with this, even though it does include deaths in traffic accidents which I don’t think should be attributable to British operations – people used to die every year in traffic accidents involving British troops and British military vehicles in Germany for example.  This is a little more relevant than it sounds to Iraq because after 1955 British forces in Germany were present at the request of a democratically-elected German government.  By 2005 every Sadrist and every al Queda member had something that the forebears of their colleagues in the 1920 Revolution Brigades did not have when they actually rebelled against British imperialism in 1920; a democratic vote to chose their own national government.

The legitimacy of the Coalition military presence in Iraq after 2005 is one distinction between the 2003 invasion phase that the popular understanding tends to ignore, but it’s not the main point in this argument.  My problem is the lack of comparative analysis. To illustrate this, let’s compare the figures for civilians killed by the British with the figures the IBC itself provides for overall civilian casualties in the four provinces of Iraq under British control between May 2003 and December 2007.

During the period of British security provision from May 2003 to December 2007, 3,334 violent civilian deaths, and 2,099 civilian wounded, were detailed in the IBC database. (‘The unexamined Iraqi dimension of UK involvement in Iraq’).  The chronological periods are not contiguous, but for the purposes of a broad and conservative comparison, they indicate that the British were killing a maximum of 322 out of a minimum 3,334 civilian deaths in their areas of responsibility (with a longer period involved for ‘British responsibility deaths’ which taken alongside the maximal figures for the deaths they inflicted deliberately skews the figures as firmly against the British as possible from the relevant IBC summaries).  In other words, more than 90% of the civilians killed in southern Iraq in the post-invasion violence were killed by somebody other than the British.

When will the IBC dedicate 90% of their editorial criticism to these agencies and their actions?  Who did these war crimes?  What was their mandate to do so?  Were they or their actions legitimate?

Remember, the 2003 invasion or jus ad bellum alone doesn’t cut it – unless you are willing to accept Dresden or Hiroshima as justified by precisely the same standard in response.  On these questions, at least, the IBC and the mainstream understanding of the Iraq conflict that it represents, remain silent. Meanwhile it merits attention, even if that will never come from the IBC or human rights activists of their stripe, that the British forces subject to their selective criticism were at least attempting to deal with the authors of over 90% of the civilian deaths during the period of their involvement in post-invasion Iraq.

The Sadrist paramilitary Mahdi Army in Basra; mass-murdering war criminals strangely absent from IBC and anti-war analysis.

Shock Film Emerges of British Public Figure Making Nazi Salute

Yes, it’s that time of year again.  Time to mention the war.  The British press have uncovered film of a child doing a Nazi salute, feeding the popular British obsession with World War Two so central to their national identity.  By virtue of the fact that the child involved was Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, the press gets the additional bonus of flogging their ‘royal family were secret Nazi sympathisers’ dead horse whilst simultaneously exhuming the coffin of the ‘royal family were German’ popular trope.  It’s hard to work out which is more offensive in all this, the ahistorical deceit involved, or the lazy servicing of hackneyed popular stereotypes.

At one level it’s a good deflective tactic.  Nobody in their right mind could believe that Elizabeth was a Nazi sympathiser, but it provides a convenient platform for exploiting the well-known appeasement sympathies of her uncle, Edward VIII, yet one more time as if it was news.  What won’t be covered, naturally, is the pro-appeasement stance of 95% of the British media in the late nineteen thirties, or the fact that 95% of schoolchildren of my era did exactly the same thing in playground games.  We also enthusiatically played Cowboys and Indians in what I’m sure would now be descibed by any number of social scientist academics struggling to obscure their unsubmittable REF status as “unacceptable patriarchal, Eurocentric supremacist imperialist colonialist reinforcement of historical crimes”.

At one level, it was encouraging to see the playground games point being made by Michael White in the Grauniad, but more entertaining from my perspective was the manner in which the same edition of that paper could unconsciously illustrate my point about the appeasement consensus in nineteen-thirties Britain.  Nobody wanted another war, the orthodox hypocrisy asserts, but surely the nature of the Nazis was sufficiently well-known that we can get away with castigating the royal family for this salute business?

It’s easy to spot the pitfalls with appeasement with hindsight.  So what possible analogy could we use to identify a similar group of violent fascists in the current world and compare our parallel response to them?  Fortunately for us, a group called Islamic State (IS) have been advancing an appreciation of fascist aggression in Iraq and Syria for some time.  Granted, they might lack the specific modern nationalist focus in exchange for a religious ideology, but they certainly hit most of the indicator tick-boxes as undemocratic anti-semites inspired by an irrational mystical cause to unleash violent terror and mass-murder in service of their proto-medieval sense of nationalist supremacy.  So, when faced with this security threat paralleling that of fascism in the thirties, and when we struggle with the consequences of the Iraq war in a hyperbolic parallel with the impact of the losses in World War One, how do we respond?

We have to look no further than Simon Tisdall, writing right next to Michael White in the Grauniad, warning that Cameron is commiting us to an open-ended war in the Middle East against IS.  Here we can hear the genuine voice of appeasement, and it springs from the same orthodox certainties about the unacceptability of casualties, and the same self-delusion about the nature of the threat involved.  Reading this stuff it becomes easier to understand how people in the nineteen thirties were so reluctant to confront the necessity of using lethal force to combat fascism.

And just to get back to inescapable centrality of eighteenth-century Whiggism, the royal family may have married Germans, but they haven’t really been German since George III proudly declared that he revelled in the name of Briton.  All this might be a total non-story, but a least it can distract us for another week or two and help the British print media’s phone-hacking scandals receed into comfortable oblivion.